One of Florida's greatest performing arts legacies will come to life in a fresh incarnation when the Sarasota Ballet presents the world premiere of "John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker."
The performance, Friday and Saturday at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, is inspired by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The entertainment giant that had its Winter Quarters in Sarasota from 1927 to 1959.
The Greatest Show on Earth remains closely associated with the city thanks to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art as well as current celebrity circus residents such as record-holding sky-walker Nik Wallenda.
Englishman Iain Webb, director of The Sarasota Ballet, has been enamored by the city's circus legacy since he arrived six years ago.
For years, he also maintained a long-term goal to do something fresh with the holiday warhorse that while beloved by the masses, is considered a deathless pest by many dancers, directors and serious ballet enthusiasts.
"I was always looking for something to do with the connection to the circus," Webb said. "I also really wanted to do a new 'Nutcracker,' something magical that had a whole new life."
In a brilliant move that should appease both camps, The Sarasota Ballet has created a circus-theme production of the "The Nutcracker" following E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story line and using the traditional Pyotr Tchaikovsky score.
It's been re-imagined by international choreographer Matthew Hart, who uses sets and costumes designed by award-winning designer Peter Docherty.
The new ballet pays homage to the 1920s and 1930s golden age of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it was helmed by Sarasotan John Ringling with considerable support from wife Mable.
Set in New York City in the chic art deco period, the freely-adopted story follows the fantasy of a little girl (Clara) as she runs away to join the "Ringling Circus" in Sarasota. By re-imagining traditional characters from the 120-year-old ballet as celebrated circus figures from Sarasota's past, "John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker" intertwines the greatest in circus and dance.
"It fits with the Tchaikovsky score just like a glove," Webb said. "You have to have a solid reason for changing one of the big classics and every connection going back to the original Hoffman story to Ringling is just the most incredible scenario."
The familiar Drosselmeyer character portrays strong similarities to John Ringling while the Nutcracker alludes to John Ringing North, John Ringling's nephew and heir. Mabel Ringling, John Ringling's wife, is characterized via The Christmas Tree Fairy.
She is also honored in act two by The Waltz of the Roses, which pays tribute to her love of roses and her famous garden, located on the grounds of the present-day John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art.
Working closely with Pat Ringling Buck, the last living member of the original Ringling Circus, for inspiration, The Sarasota Ballet has turned Act Two of the ballet into a succession of circus acts that includes equestrienne, Arabian, acrobats, tightrope, clowns and trapeze.
"Another thing that is incredible about the production is it really captures some amazingly beautiful moments," Webb said.
"Young Clara and her love for the Nutcracker, and the moving feeling brought in by the spirit of Mable.
"John (Ringling) never got over her. She was his best friend and they did everything together. He was devastated when she passed away."
With the dancers rehearsing six days a week, elaborate sets being constructed and more than 100 costumes being fitted and handcrafted locally, this tailored world-premiere is one of the largest productions in the two-decade history of the Sarasota Ballet.
Set to live music performed by the Sarasota Orchestra, "John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker" will be performed at the Van Wezel Friday and Saturday with three additional performance at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall Dec. 21-22. Many more performances might also be in the works.
"This production is such a good, solid interpretation of 'Nutcracker" the possibilities are endless," Webb said. "I don't see us having our own Sarasota Ballet train (laugh) but we're certainly very open and hopeful to tour this all over."
Details: 8 p.m. Dec. 14; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 15, The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets: $10-$90. Information: 941-359-0099 or www.sarasotaballet.org.
Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow Twitter.com/wtatangelo.